NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Ten years ago, the murder of six-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey developed into a media circus. The circumstances surrounding the death were strange, suspicion fell on the parents, rumors were rampant, but finally even this case went cold. The buzz died down. Everyone seemed to forget about it.
Last week's announcement of a new suspect in the case took many by surprise. Who even knew the investigation was still ongoing? What happened in the elapsed time to make the case move forward?
Over the past several years, many police departments around the country have started up special squads of detectives who specialize in cold cases. And while some are highly successful, their backlog keeps growing. Thousands of cases every year go cold. Between 1976 and 2004, the percentage of unsolved homicides increased from 21 percent to 37 percent nationally.
Cold cases are difficult to work on and tough to prosecute. Today we'll look at the anatomy of a cold murder case, how it's approached, solved, and the toll it takes on those close to the victims.
Later on in the program, summer is winding down, but did you get much of a break? We'll examine the mysterious shrinking American vacation. And we'll remember Maj. Gen. Kathryn Frost, the most senior ranking woman in the U.S. Army before her retirement last year. She died last Friday.
But first, in pursuit of the cold case. If you have questions about how these cases are handled or if you've been involved with one, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our first guest is Valencia Mohammed. She's the founder of Mothers of Unsolved Murders D.C., and she's also a reporter for The Afro American Newspaper. She's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to come in today.
Ms. VALENCIA MOHAMMED (Founder, Mothers of Unsolved Murders D.C.; Reporter, The Afro American Newspaper): Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And this movement that you founded, this is based on your personal experience.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yes, it is, sir.
CONAN: And the first - you've had the awful experience and there's no way anybody who's - can do anything but speak in amazement. Your son was murdered. He was, of course, the man who found the body of your other son who was murdered.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yes. All I can say is that my second son, Imtiaz, to me was on like a suicidal path after he found my - his brother - 14-year-old brother dead in our home. It's like he gave up on life. He was a A-minus, B-plus student, and he dropped out of school. And from speaking with other mothers of murdered victims, a lot of their siblings, regardless of how well they were doing in school, seem to show that same kind of behavior.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. When the investigation of his murder was going on, the second murder...
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yes.
CONAN: ...you became, I think it's fair to say, a little obsessed.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Very...
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Ms. MOHAMMED: ...obsessed. I decided not to take that sit back and wait for the police detectives to solve the murder approach but rather - since the - it was about like I don't know - since about like several hours after the killing of Imtiaz I was given the name of the person who did it by people in the community. They were just coming to me like crazy. I just said, okay, I'll pass this on to the detectives. And just from talking to them, knowing that they had so many cases to solve, like, you know...
Ms. MOHAMMED: ...that night I think they may have had some other murders that were going on in southeast and northeast D.C.- I just said I've got to do this a little bit differently. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I was actually using myself as bait.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Using yourself as bait...
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yes.
CONAN: ...hoping to draw out the person you knew - and you also knew the police knew who it was, but they just couldn't prove it.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yeah, they told me very early that they knew who did it. And from speaking with the police chief and a lot of his top brass, they said about 90 percent of the time they knew - they know who has committed the crime. It's a matter of people coming forth to go before the grand jury. And people were giving them anonymous tips, but they were scared of this particular person because he had a reputation in the community of killing other people and had gotten away with it for years.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Indeed. As it turns out, eventually the person involved was arrested, was charged with your son's murder. And it turned out that he'd been involved in another case, was due to be brought up on trial but the charges were dismissed when a witness refused to testify against him. If that witness had testified, your son would be alive.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Right, today. Maybe, I hope so. That's what we were counting on. That was from 1997 actually. And so what's happened recently is that nine -eight months after my son was killed, this particular individual did kill another person over some mere argument. He didn't like the way the man spoke to him...
Ms. MOHAMMED: ...and he killed him. And just recently, about two weeks ago, he admitted - pleaded guilty to that murder, so he'll be sentenced on September 9th. But that's only for that murder. So for the other two murders that he has been indicted on, we'll be going to trial in December.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Through all of this, your dealings with the police department were both positive and negative.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yes.
CONAN: It was a curious combination of things.
Ms. MOHAMMED: They just - I know that they meant well. First of all, I had two really good detectives, but they were overwhelmed. It seems like they had so many cases - and now you've got to understand. I mean we have about 4,600 unsolved murders in the district, so the police department, because we don't have as many investigators as we should, as other jurisdictions do, the police officers have to do the investigation themselves, which takes them away from some of their regular and ordinary duties, and that's part of the problem.
So they were overwhelmed. Bodies were still dropping around everyday, and so it just seemed like they weren't able to do their work. One of the detectives that I had, Sean - I think his name is Sean Cane(ph) or whatever - I would see them sometimes as a reporter in the federal courts or in D.C. Superior Court, and I said, well, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be solving my son's murder. And they said, well, I'm in court today.
And so that's, you know, eight hours that he was in court when I think they should have been solving crimes. So that was part of my disappointment. I didn't think that they were moving fast enough, and it wasn't - I didn't think they were lazy, I just thought that they had too much work.
CONAN: And they tended to take the cases that became priorities for one reason or another.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Oh, no doubt about it. If something had happened in another part of town, like a very middle class black neighborhood or in Georgetown, rest assure, everything was cast to the side, and then you have maybe 20 officers going into one area versus two or one that may be trying to investigate your case.
CONAN: So issues of class and race definitely come into it.
Ms. MOHAMMED: No doubt about it.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. As you went through this, eventually, as we've mentioned, the police did locate the man they believed murdered your son. He will be going on trial for that.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Well, actually, they almost stumbled on him. He almost like came to them actually.
Ms. MOHAMMED: He killed another person on Rhode Island Avenue eight months after my son, and the witnesses in this particular case were not afraid. I don't think they knew his prior history actually, and they turned him in. He had lived two doors down from the establishment where he killed someone and they - and because they had done business with him they had his license plate number and turned that in. And they were able to arrest him at his mother's home in Laurel, Maryland. That was to our advantage.
CONAN: At the same time, you eventually came to believe that your son Imtiaz, who was murdered, knew more about his brother's killing than he had ever told you or told the police.
Ms. MOHAMMED: That's what happens with a lot of family members, that individuals are not - if you - they have no-snitch thing out there. I mean how do you not tell your mother?
So I think that he may have found out something about my son's murder that he refused to tell me. Because just recently I found out several months ago through an investigation that The Washington Post was conducting on an article they were doing that the - that he had asked for...
Ms. MOHAMMED: ...immunity in giving some information about my son's - my other son's death when he was in court on something else, and I never knew that. I said, well, what do you mean? So I just asked the police department whatever they have to bring it out because I need to know so that I can close this case.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. The other thing you talked about was your need to take some action yourself. You did it in terms of your experience as a community activist. You were - you used to be a member of the D.C. school board...
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yeah.
CONAN: ...and you know some of the ropes pretty well and created these flyers and created some publicity. You also talked with parents who meant to take this - the cases of their children into their hands but maybe in a less positive fashion.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Oh, I had the opportunity to meet with women that came from different walks of life, from those that were - that work on Capitol Hill or may have been on the police department. They may have been - worked in hospitals, all the way down to mothers on crack or those who just came out of the prison system. So I've spoke with a gamut of mothers. And when you speak with those individuals, then you have - they have a different kind of attitude.
Sometimes I would sit there and somebody would say, you know, we're trying to get our money together so we can order a hitman. And I'm trying to, you know, I'm trying to be cool, to just say, okay, I didn't really hear that, and I want to make it out of this lady's house. But I knew that they were very serious about that. Or I may have spoken to another mother who said, well, you know, I followed this particular individual who killed my son who's in jail for five years and he's gone to four or five different prisons; and when he gets out, he's not going to live very long. And I'm saying to myself, okay, let me just make sure that she doesn't know that I heard her very well. Let me try to play this off.
People are very serious. They want these murderers killed, and they don't think that the police are taking this as serious as they can. In fact, there's a saying in our community that as far as murders are concerned in the African-American community, the police have this attitude of self-cleaning ovens.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Let them clean theirself out. We'll just sit back and watch.
CONAN: And you obviously understand this anger...
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yes.
CONAN: ...as someone who's experienced this, yet this is not a solution.
Ms. MOHAMMED: No, definitely not. No. I've asked people to follow my example. Let's come together, form coalitions, and demand a forensics lab.
CONAN: There's no forensics lab in Washington?
Ms. MOHAMMED: That's unbelievable. How in the nation's capital, when you have almost 5,000 unsolved murders on the books since 1969, that no one has taken the time out of all the police chiefs and all the honors that they have given them - not until Charles Ramsey has come that...
CONAN: The current chief of police here in Washington.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Right, the current chief of police - that there's been a cry for a forensics lab? So now we're working on that very - we're not taking no for an answer. We don't want to hear about any other special projects that the council or the mayor or the mayoral candidates out there may have. We want this forensics lab and we want it now.
CONAN: Valencia Mohammed, we wish you the best of luck.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you very much for coming in today.
Ms. MOHAMMED: You're welcome, sir.
CONAN: And we'll be following the results of that trial come November -December, excuse me.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Valencia Mohammed founded Mothers of Unsolved Murders, D.C. She's a full-time reporter for The Afro-American Newspaper here in Washington. She was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.
And if you have questions about how cold cases work, about the politics of it and about the mechanics of it, if you're experienced in this, either as an investigator or as somebody who's unfortunately had a family member or a friend who's case has gone unsolved, give us a phone call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Last week's arrest in the 10-year-old murder case of JonBenet Ramsey put what had become a cold case back in the limelight. Today we're talking about how police investigate and solve these cold murder cases and how ongoing investigations effect people close to the victims.
Of course, you're invited to join us. If you've been involved with an unsolved murder or have questions about cold case investigations, give us a call at 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The way investigators handle cold cases are different from the way they investigate hot ones. Joining us now is Joe - excuse me - Lou Eliopulos. He's a forensic consultant and senior homicide analyst for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. He joins us from the studios at member station WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. LOU ELIOPULOS (Forensic Consultant and Senior Homicide Analyst, Naval Criminal Investigative Service): Thank you for having me.
CONAN: We mentioned earlier in the show that the percentage of unsolved homicides in the U.S. increased from 21 percent in 1976 to 37 percent in 2004. How come? You have any ideas?
Mr. ELIOPULOS: Well, sure. The types of homicides that we're seeing have changed over 30 or 40 years. It used to be homicides between people that knew one another, that were altercations or domestics. With the advent of interstates, with convenience shopping, there were robberies that resulted in homicides. The stranger-to-stranger homicides started to increase, and those were the cases that we didn't know how to investigate.
CONAN: Hmm. And how has that side of it changed over the past several years, the investigative side, as you're dealing with these new kinds of crimes?
Mr. ELIOPULOS: Well, when you look at the older cases, Neal, what we would look at is if we got on a scene, we learned to do homicide investigation by finding out who was upset with or who would have benefited in this person's death.
When we deal with the homicides that we see today where grandma's going to her car in a parking mall and a couple of kids come up and shoot her and take her purse, we can go until we're blue in the face to try to solve that case, but it's not going to be solved with conventional means. So technology has been increasingly important in addressing those types of cases.
CONAN: The forensics lab, and in particular DNA?
Mr. ELIOPULOS: Especially DNA, yes.
CONAN: How much of a sea change has this made? I mean between - obviously, you used to have fingerprints and other kinds of, you know, fibers and stuff that could be, you know, used to tie people to crimes. DNA has made an enormous difference.
Mr. ELIOPULOS: It has in terms of being positive identification. You know, we dealt with numbers before when we dealt with serology. Fibers and stuff, we could say that things were consistent or inconsistent. With fingerprints, we always look for the positive identification. We had developments 10 or 15 years ago of a database for fingerprints with IAFIS, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. And the thought was wouldn't it be nice if we had the killer's blood or semen at a scene, wouldn't it be nice to put this into a database and be able to find out who that belonged to, and we have that today. It's called CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System.
CONAN: Hmm. Let's get some callers on the line. This is Ann(ph). Ann's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.
ANN (Caller): Well, good afternoon to everyone there, and good afternoon to my compatriot here in Jacksonville. I was formerly part of the Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, D.C., in the late '60s and very early '70s, was around during the Freeway Phantom cases.
First of all, I think it breaks my heart to hear people say that the area of a town where someone has died makes a difference because I can tell you from the inside it does not. I would encourage people when they find that a cold case has been reopened to get in touch with the officers or the detectives or the staff that's working on them and to please tell them the information again, because sometimes files are lost and you may be able to supply that one piece of information that was lost that then can be regained and be used.
And so that's really what I would like to say is when people find they reopen, get back in touch, and if you have any information, provide it.
CONAN: Hmm. Lou Eliopulos, from what I've read, people calling in with tips, that is a lot of what gets cold cases reactivated, somebody suddenly feeling a case of conscience perhaps.
Mr. ELIOPULOS: When we look at a case and decide that we're going to open up that case, there are three things that solve homicide cases. One is witness statements. The other is physical evidence. The third is confessions. So being one-third of the possibility of solving a case - the witnesses coming forward are very critical to any investigation.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Ann, thanks very much for the call, and good luck to you. Is it that difference - I mean time changes, as the old cliché has it, everything. But time certainly degrades witnesses' memories. It certainly degrades some physical evidence too. It must get much harder as a case gets older to bring a cold case investigation to a successful close.
Mr. ELIOPULOS: Yeah, that's one of the differences between working a hot case and a cold case. Usually on a hot case, we think that time is really our enemy, that there's a certain amount of time that we need to collect information, to interview witnesses, to find witnesses, to develop motive, develop opportunity.
With cold cases, we use that to our advantage. Even though it may somewhat effect people's memories, it also changes the relationships of individuals. We find people that were married that are no longer married, or people that were part of a drug group now have religion. Or we've had cases where we've made a deliberate effort on drug dealers to try to get them in jail and in prison away from other group members so that the other group members fearing from this drug dealer will come forward with the information, and it was successful in a case in Virginia.
CONAN: Hmm. Well, the Richmond, Virginia, police department made some changes in the last couple of years to increase dramatically its clearance rate of unsolved homicides and now has one of the highest clearance rates for homicide in the country. Captain John Venuti from that department joins us now from his office to tell us how they did it.
Captain Venuti, nice to have you on the program today.
Captain JOHN VENUTI (Captain, Richmond Police Department): Good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: So what did the Richmond police change?
Captain VENUTI: Well, one of the major changes is the concept of a dedicated homicide unit. We have a homicide unit here in Richmond, Virginia, which, unlike many other agencies, focuses solely on homicide, not a combination of all types of violent crime.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And the difference between that is that you can focus on one case at a time?
Capt. VENUTI: Well, that's part of the reason. Obviously, when a homicide occurs initially the investigation is real important. It gives us the ability to combine all the assets and resources that we have here both at the Richmond Police Department as well as a lot of the agencies that we partner with - a lot of the federal agencies, probation and parole - and basically to focus all those resources on that particular incident obviously with a greater chance of more - better application of resources, of clearing that incident quickly.
CONAN: And when you go to cold cases, what are the priorities you put on it? What makes one more solvable than another?
Capt. VENUTI: Well, some of the things, you know, that we look at is obviously significant new evidence. Obviously, that's real important. What we do a lot of here at the Richmond Police Department is a lot of alternative targeting where we may have information that an individual may be a significant witness in a case that we're investigating, that particular individual may be involved in drug trafficking, gun trafficking. And what we do is we move some of the deployable assets that we have and actually target that individual with the goal of arresting them, prosecuting them - either federally or state - and then hopefully - you know, everyone needs motivation, and that's what it's all about for witnesses.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. For witnesses - and we've been hearing throughout that it's often difficult, particularly in drug and gang-related crimes, to get people to come forward to testify against people who they are intimidated by, whether directly or indirectly.
Capt. VENUTI: Exactly. We also have some steps that we take here with dealing with witnesses. You really can't expect witnesses to come forward to any police agency without the feeling of some sense of security. We have a witness protection fund that we use here. And basically when witnesses come forward, we attempt to provide whatever resources we need to in order to convince them to come forward and cooperate.
A lot of times that may involve relocation. A lot of times that's what witnesses really want to hear. Like I said, everyone has motivation, and with witnesses you just need to identify what it is that's going to actually make that person come forward and cooperate.
CONAN: Lou Eliopulos, is that right in your experience?
Mr. ELIOPULOS: I'll tell you, Captain John Venuti brings out a couple of good points, one of which is homicide investigation is changing. It used to be an individual effort by homicide detectives. It used to be where they'd hold the case file close to their chest and ask why other people were inquiring about their case.
Now it's a team effort. We utilize other detectives, the experience. We utilize other agencies, working very closely together. We employ the utilization of crime labs, evidence technicians, to work on the case. We look at the opportunity to solve a case. First and foremost is the physical evidence. Second would be the witnesses. And if there's intimidation there - certainly we can understand when you have these crimes - especially drug crimes that are gang related, that are in neighborhoods where the individuals live - to ask them to come forward and testify against people in their neighborhood without the efforts of protection are very critical factors to overcome in working a homicide investigation.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Barbara. Barbara calling from St. Louis.
BARBARA (Caller): Hi there.
CONAN: Hi there.
BARBARA: I'm just wondering - I didn't know if my brother's case could be reopened or not. Eighteen years ago my brother was murdered here in St. Louis and we had heard from the police that they did figure out who did it. It happened in traffic on a highway and the young man that was in the car with the shooter was going to come forward, but just like the first woman mentioned, he got frightened for his own life and would not come forward. So it was never solved or he was never convicted. And I'm wondering, you know, can I go to the police now and say, hey, you knew who this guy was. Maybe if they re-contact that witness things could've changed. I...
CONAN: Captain Venuti, you're obviously in Richmond and not in St. Louis, but does this sound something that might be plausible?
Capt. VENUTI: Absolutely. And one of the things - one of the other concepts that we're really using here nowadays in homicide investigations is better family management. A lot of times in the past agencies wouldn't work very, very closely with families, victim's families.
Capt. VENUTI: And to me it's absolutely key in any homicide investigation. A lot of times, even in current year cases, some of the best information we get pertaining to those cases comes from family members. And a lot of times it's really the agency's responsibility to work closely with the family and give them a realistic expectation of the possible outcomes of that case.
So like I said, if I was you I would contact that agency and have them look into that particular case. It may just be a matter of misunderstanding of what you initially understood. It may be a matter that that agency can open that case and take a look at it. A lot of time has passed. Some witnesses may have come forward. And I think that's every victim's right.
BARBARA: That would be great. Well, thank you.
CONAN: Good luck, Barbara.
CONAN: Bye bye. And John Venuti, thanks very much for your time.
Capt. VENUTI: You're welcome.
CONAN: Captain John Venuti with the Richmond Police Department joined us by phone from his office in Richmond, Virginia. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Patricia. Patricia calling us from Middlebury Heights in Ohio.
PATRICIA (Caller): Good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
PATRICIA: My brother was murdered in 1999. The police are telling me right now that we know who killed your brother. He was murdered in front of 200 witnesses, but none will come forward and speak or I.D. this guy. So every year or so I call and find out, have you heard anything new? No, no one's come forward, no one's come forward.
So now I'm in the process of actually trying to get ABC or CBS to rerun the story. Because if that many witnesses viewed the whole thing, saw the crime, after this amount of time has passed somebody should be able to say, okay, maybe it's a good time now to say who did it.
CONAN: Yeah. Lou Eliopulos, does exposure like that in the media, can that help your case?
Mr. ELIOPULOS: Media's incredibly important. You've seen such shows as John Walsh's show produce results on cases or finding fugitives.
CONAN: America's Most Wanted, yeah.
Mr. ELIOPULOS: America's Most Wanted. It's an incredible important phase. There're certain cases that the media is incredibly important. We teach homicide detectives when they have these cases, instead of not cooperating with the media, in fact to utilize the media, to get that information out and to develop these witnesses that will come forward.
Or if there's a group in that area that can put together some funds for people to come forward and get paid for the information, you know, those are different things that we would utilize in trying to solve a case like your brother's.
CONAN: And aren't those almost 180 degrees from what the situation is in a hot murder investigation? You're deluged with questions from reporters you don't want to talk to. And if somebody offers a reward it can sometimes lead to just an unending number of calls which would turn out to be false tips.
Mr. ELIOPULOS: Yeah, but amongst all those false tips there might that one gem, and that what we do in homicide investigation. We look through all the vast amounts of information and you start to build your case from that.
CONAN: Patricia, good luck.
PATRICIA: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And we appreciate the time you took to call us today. As you look ahead, it seems - just from an outsider's point of view - that the formation of a specialized homicide squad in Richmond, which has had such wonderful success there - why did it take so long? Why do these kinds of reforms - a cold case unit in so many areas of the country - why does it take so long to come up with these reforms, do you think?
Mr. ELIOPULOS: There's a couple of reasons, one of which is that we had a crack cocaine problem that started to occur in the early '80s, mid-'80s, lasting through the mid-'90s. Departments were just incredibly inundated. Departments that handled 25 homicides sometimes were facing 250.
And so to react to that - sometimes we're slow as agencies to react to problems. In homicide, there's a learning curve of about five years before you feel comfortable as a homicide detective. So we were facing...
CONAN: And by then you're starting to get burned out. That's usually the problem.
Mr. ELIOPULOS: Absolutely. And what happened was you ended up going from scene to scene. People that should have five homicides on their slate for the entire year picked up five homicides in their duty week. So what happened was that they made decisions on cases that could be solved very readily, very easily, and those cases were solved. The other ones were put off and unsolved. And they were warehoused.
And when we started to see the trend of homicides decreasing, instead of reacting to that by getting rid of homicide detectives and putting them in other areas of the department, they started taking a look at cold cases, whether or not we can take another look at these cases that we didn't take a very good look at before and see if there's something that we can do.
And with that came this technology and what we talked about earlier with DNA. Now they don't have a choice with cold cases. What's happening now is we're getting phone calls from the crime lab telling us they've got a suspect in our case. And those departments are now forced to form cold case squads.
CONAN: Lou Eliopulos, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it. Lou Eliopulos, a former forensic consultant and senior homicide analyst for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and author of the Death Investigator's Handbook. And he joins us today from member station WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida.
When we come back from a short break, the incredible shrinking vacation. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.